This is a novel I may never have read had my friend Kalliope not invited me to join in a group read. While I'm an enthusiatic reader of 19th century English and (to a lesser extent) French literature, my exposure to German literature of this period has been sadly lacking. So I'm glad to have had the opportunity to read this novel along with other neophytes and with experts in German literature. While I mostly lurked on its fringes, the group discussion has been informative and stimulating.
To a large extent, the plot of this novel is disclosed in the title and all the rest is detail. It concerns a prosperous and well-respected family from the mercantile middle class of northern Germany, whose wealth and social status are dissipated with each passing generation until the family effectively disappears altogether. Mann concentrates on two characters in particular, Thomas Buddenbrook and his sister Antonie. Both identify strongly with their family and make decisions based on what they believe is owed to its history, its reputation and its continued prosperity. Neither is destined for happiness.
Mann's prose and descriptive ability are superb. Or at least I assume they are, because they've been rendered beautifully in the translation by John E Woods. The story is told through an omnipresent, omniscient, rather detached and ironic narrator. This is both a strength and weakness of the work. While the narrator is able to explore the perspective and motivation of the various characters, the detachment and irony of the narrator's voice may be the reason I didn't feel fully engaged with the characters. I would have liked to have been more moved by the characters than I was. For me, the fate of the Buddenbrook family was of more intellectual than emotional interest.
Oscar Wilde famously defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The Buddenbrooks certainly knew the price of everything. I don't know that they were necessarily cynical, but most members of the family had a warped idea of the value of their family, seeing it only in terms of what it owned and what it could buy. Mann's account of the family's downfall is a salutary lesson of the dangers of being the kind of person described by Oscar Wilde.
I've now moved on to another 19th century middle class family saga, The Man of Property, the first novel in John Galsworthy's [b:The Forsyte Saga|103159|The Forsyte Saga|John Galsworthy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1171490311s/103159.jpg|842726]. It will be interesting to see Galsworthy's take on middle class sensibilities in a changing world.